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High stakes as Cotu, 80 agencies join landmark Facebook labour dispute

Woman holds smartphone with Facebook logo in front of Facebook's new rebrand logo Meta. [Reuters]

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) has been enjoined as an interested party in a case aiming to hold social network giant Facebook liable for alleged human rights violations in Kenya.

Cotu has also joined the more than 80 other agencies and individuals that have signed an open letter asking the social networking giant to stop intimidating Daniel Motaung, a moderator fired by Samasource Kenya, a sub-contractor for Facebook.

“Daniel and the hundreds of colleagues who he is standing up for are an integral part of Facebook’s global workforce,” reads the letter in part. “Their relentless work sifting through the most toxic and harmful content on the platform, including beheadings and child abuse, hour after hour, day upon day, is what keeps the company in business.”

“Their experiences should be taken seriously and they should be encouraged and supported to speak up – not fired from their jobs and gagged,” states the letter.

The letter has been signed by more than 80 individuals, academics and human rights agencies from Kenya and across the world, including former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Facebook parent company Meta has been sued alongside Samasource Kenya, a third-party contractor hired to provide content moderation services, for violating labour practices in Kenya.

Daniel Motaung, a former content moderator accuses Samasource and Facebook of violating his labour rights and that of his colleagues and is seeking to have the High Court quash the non-disclosure agreements they signed when joining the company.

The suit which also cites the Attorney General and Data Protection Commissioner as interested parties accuses Facebook and Samasource of luring Mr Motaung and his colleagues for a content moderation job without informing them of the nature of the posts they would be moderating.

“The advertisement misrepresented the role, and caused our client to understand that it was administrative,” explains the demand letter was given to Facebook. “No disclosure was given that the content moderators being sought were to work as Facebook content moderators.”

Samasource and Meta are also accused of neglecting the mental well-being of the moderators employed to review and remove content that is often graphic and disturbing from the platform.

“Sama and Meta failed to prepare our client for the kind of job he was to do and its effects,” states the demand letter.

“The first video he remembers moderating was of a beheading. Up to that point, no psychological support had been offered to him in advance.”

In its defence, Facebook’s parent company Meta has argued that the High Court in Kenya has no jurisdiction to hear the case because Facebook is not domiciled in Kenya.

“This court has no jurisdiction to impose the Constitution and the laws of Kenya extraterritorially and to foreign corporations who are not resident, trading or domiciled in Kenya,” explains Meta in a response filed by law firm Kaplan and Stratton.

Millions of Kenyans use Meta’s social platform WhatsApp daily with more than 13 million Kenyans on Facebook and about 2.7 million on Instagram.

Financial Standard has also obtained records indicating that two companies; Facebook Payments Ltd and Facebook International Services Kenya are registered with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) with physical addresses in Dagoretti and Westlands respectively.

Facebook did not respond to inquiries on whether the two firms registered in Kenya are affiliated with the parent company Meta.

Earlier this week, Meta said it has quadrupled the size of its global team focusing on safety and security to more than 40,000 people including hiring more content reviewers.

“In the six months leading up to April 30, 2022, Meta took action on more than 37,000 pieces of content for violating its hate speech policies on Facebook and Instagram in Kenya,” said the firm in a statement.

“During the same period, Meta also took action on more than 42,000 pieces of content that violated its violence and incitement policies,” stated the firm.

Tomorrow, the case will come up for hearing at the High Court where Meta is seeking to have its global entities Meta Platforms Inc and Meta Platforms Ireland Ltd struck from the suit.

The case could set the precedent over relations between the social networking giant, third-party contractors and the moderators they hire, particularly outside the US and Europe. 

In 2020, Facebook agreed to pay Sh5.8 billion in damages to current and former moderators in the US, to compensate them for mental health issues they developed while executing their duties.

Facebook has in the past been accused of having lower privacy and safety standards for its users outside the US and Europe and the firm dedicates more than 80 per cent of its budget to content moderation in English.

“Meta and Sama publicly claim to champion freedom of expression, and to support global movements fighting for equality and racial justice,” explains the open letter in part. “It is impossible to square such statements with your actions in Kenya and with your treatment of content moderation workers globally.”